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Universities and diploma mills

November 26th, 2004

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the idea of “teaching-only” universities. This discussion confuses two separate issues. The first is whether we should return to some variant of the binary system we had in the 1980s, with two kinds of universities. The research universities (the existing sandstones and some others) would carry on as before, while the teaching universities would drop research and PhD programs, and probably offer a somewhat different range of courses. In the Australian context, these would be low-status institutions, though the example of US “liberal arts” colleges shows that this need not be the case.

The other question is that of recently-arrived enterprises that don’t resemble universities in any sense except that they offer post-secondary education of some kind as part of their business. Examples are[1] Melbourne University Private also trading as Hawthorn English Language Centre and the various city centre “campuses” established by universities like CQU as well as potential commercial entrants from overseas, such as the “University” of Phoenix. In essence, these are trade schools offering business (and maybe computer) training along with English teaching to overseas students.

Looking at the first issue first, it’s not necessarily a bad idea, but it’s not going to happen in the short run without a lot of coercion, and the benefits don’t seem to justify the costs. A more appropriate and likely approach is to look at departments rather than universities and allocate research resources on the basis of something like the UK Research Assessment Exercise. A university that was rated poorly across the board would become a teaching-only university by default. But there’s no reason why a generally low-rated university couldn’t (or shouldn’t) have one or two areas of research expertise.

The second idea is where the action is. It was motivated by the observation that Melbourne University Private managed a grand total of only 12 research publications last year. AFAIK, CQU doesn’t break out its central city operations, but I expect the numbers would be lower if anything. Since universities are supposed to do research, this is a problem for these institutions in getting access to various funding schemes designed for universities.

It seems clear to me highly unlikely that funding systems designed for universities will be a useful model for this kind of setup. If anything they are closer to TAFEs. This of course raises the need, which I’ve stressed before, for a comprehensive approach to post-secondary education, integrating funding and student support for unis, TAFEs and maybe others. In the meantime, though, funding policy for this kind of setup should be designed separately from that for universities. It follows, I think, that the various setups established using public money should either be fully reintegrated (this would entail offering and filling a substantial number of HECS places) or sold off and left to fend for themselves in the private market.

fn1. I know this kind of thing is par for the course nowadays, but shouldn’t an institution purporting to be both a university and an English language centre adopt a name that’s well-formed in English. A standard rule of the English language, routinely violated in recent Australian bureaucratic nomenclature, is that adjectives precede nouns. How about Melbourne University Private Academy? (Of course, if we are going to be descriptively accurate, Alan Gilbert Private Boondoggle would be closer to the mark.)

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  1. Uncle Milton
    November 26th, 2004 at 08:24 | #1

    “sold off and left to fend for themselves in the private market.”

    That’s all very well, but how could Melbourne University Private then trade off the prestige of the Melbourne University brand name?

  2. John Quiggin
    November 26th, 2004 at 08:45 | #2

    I guess they find Hawthorn English language centre is OK as a brand name.

    Seriously, if Melbourne doesn’t mind diluting the prestige of the main institution, I’d be happy enough with the offshoot using a name like Melbourne University Private Academy or some such (see my added footnote).

  3. Uncle Milton
    November 26th, 2004 at 09:10 | #3

    ” if Melbourne doesn’t mind diluting the prestige of the main institution”

    A very short sighted decision by the Univeristy Council, or whoever decides these things.

    Can you imagine Harvard or Yale putting its brand name at risk like that?

  4. Mark Bahnisch
    November 26th, 2004 at 10:15 | #4

    MUP is a separate entity – hence its necessity to seek accreditation. So are CQU’s city campusses – I worked at the Brisbane one last year and was not employed by CQU. They are run by a company which CQU has part ownership in – and receives a proportional share of the profit (if any). There’s certainly not a lot of research going on at CQU metropolitan campusses.

  5. ray
    November 26th, 2004 at 10:50 | #5

    Maybe, we get back closer to the CAE model. Perhaps some of the regional/smaller city ones might become rebadged as Institutes of Technology again, it hasn’t done MIT any harm (but I guess you could argue it hasn’t helped RMIT). At the end of the day, how much “good” research is really done beyond the “sandstone” universities? That’s what we need to know, obviously a rebadging will affect foreign admissions, but perhaps foreign students aren’t really getting what they think they are getting anyway from some institutions.

    disclaimer: undergrad at UWA and attempting postgrad at UNE


  6. November 26th, 2004 at 11:37 | #6

    Melbourne Business School is a seperate independent company from Melburne University but it awards its degrees through Melbourne University. I don’t think that UniMelb is even a shareholder or partner in Melbourne Business School. MBS owns its own buildings and pays according to world wide market for business academics.

    The Business School is generally seen to add considerable value to the University name in national and international terms at no ($) risk to the university.

    Prof. JQ: One of the fascinating topics I’d like to read a bit more about is the inability of almost all high flying business schools in Oz to get out of a deficit and make a profit despite having the best business brains in the country (world) on staff, on boards and a huge pool of bright, marketting, finance, management, strategy, economics, students to give free advice. Hewson etc. Its great for a smirk by those smarmy humanities types.

  7. Andrew Norton
    November 26th, 2004 at 13:18 | #7

    The basic problem here is that governments adopted in 2000 a definition of ‘university’ (ie with research as an essential element) that is inconsistent with the need to keep costs under control and and in tension with the need to make higher education teaching more professional. By creating near-insurmountable barriers to entry, it also protects existing universities from competition.

    Ideally, perhaps, we would keep terms like ‘college’ or ‘academy’ for non-research institutions, to make differences clearer. But the word ‘university’ counts for a lot in the marketplace. In my view occasional confusion about what an institution does is a small disadvantage compared to the advantages of allowing teaching-only universities.

    Essentially, those institutions that primarily deliver higher education courses (as defined in the AQF http://www.aqf.edu.au/thirteen.htm ) should be allowed to call themselves universities.

  8. John Quiggin
    November 26th, 2004 at 13:39 | #8

    “But the word ‘university’ counts for a lot in the marketplace.”

    All the more reason to deny it to things that are clearly not universities, like MUP/Hawthorn and the CQU city operations.

  9. November 26th, 2004 at 15:21 | #9

    There are legal restrictions preventing non-educational institutions calling themselves “colleges”. Yet the original concept of college still serves a useful purpose; how to avoid constraining what we are allowed to think about, the Newspeak problem?

  10. November 26th, 2004 at 16:10 | #10

    You’ve hit me at a bad moment – I’ve just come from a meeting about planning a new TAFE course which is encouraging international students.

    At least here, the interface between the institution’s desire to survive and what it does is breaking down badly. Offer an apparently attractive course with enticing paperwork like valuable competencies, trim the staff and double the students, and provide no support for English-poor overseas student. Brand? Huh!

    Meanwhile, of course, the value of all those existing degrees is slowly eroded. Those deranged managerialists at RMIT sit blinking in the wreckage and wondering why they aren’t getting the overseas students.

    Question one: what do you offer the students?
    Question two: how do you get and sustain the best staff?
    Question three: how do you support the research and enquiry the culture and economy needs?

    Core objectives for a successful society. Sorry. Cranky. Feeling used.

  11. James Farrell
    November 26th, 2004 at 23:31 | #11

    “Looking at the first issue first, it’s not necessarily a bad idea…”

    I guess it sounds fine if you happen to be at a sandstone. Deeply demoralising for the rest.

  12. November 27th, 2004 at 07:15 | #12

    FYI, research definitely goes on at top liberal arts colleges in the US. Junior faculty can’t get tenure without doing at least some sound research and many senior faculty remain quite productive as well. It’s not too rare that they work with undergrads as research assistants, which works similarly well to grad students as RAs at many other places since the quality of the students at the top colleges can be very good. Perhaps a better comparison (or another one) would be universities in the US that don’t grant PhDs, but have large undergrad populations (and in some cases Master’s programs).

  13. John Quiggin
    November 27th, 2004 at 08:30 | #13

    To clarify, James, what I meant to say was that a binary system is not an inherently bad idea, but that forcing universities that are currently doing research to drop it would be a painful and unproductive exercise. So I don’t think we are disagreeing on this.

    Eszter, thanks for the correction on liberla arts colleges.

  14. November 27th, 2004 at 10:26 | #14

    JQ, would you like another correction on “liberla” [sic] arts colleges? Hey, what else are friends for.

  15. November 27th, 2004 at 13:56 | #15

    I can’t resist pushing a depressing coincidental metaphor one stage further.

    “Liberia Arts Colleges” is what we may end up with if some of the more hard pressed institutions keep imploding.

    With all due respects to educated Liberians who are probably trying to keep a really smashed-up country going.

  16. James Farrell
    November 27th, 2004 at 21:29 | #16

    Thanks for that clarification, John. I wonder if competition from ‘teaching only’ universities would force the existing universities to improve their teaching. Who knows, they might even create incentives for lecturers to teach properly.

  17. November 28th, 2004 at 21:11 | #17

    How much can we hope to achieve by organisational change without a major re-think about the nature and purpose of universities, and liberal education in general? Who is currently engaged in this activity, and where are the forums for the necessary discussion?

    The universities have been mugged and those who care are now in a state of shock, wondering what hit them and what they should have done years ago to avert disaster. Part of the problem is that the cast of mind and the activities that need to be cultivated for good teaching, scholarship and research are very different from those required to play politics. Not that I am sufficiently naive to think that academia itself was ever innocent of political games and machinations.

    Some good thinking on the basic issues can be found in a collection of essays edited by a Melbourne academic whose name has slipped my mind. Several of the essays share a common characteristic, after some good solid analysis the tone suddenly changes into a rant against economic rationality. Fair go mates! I take second place to nobody as an economic rationalist (John Hyde told me that “you breathe purer air than me”) but like every other good thing you need to know when to stop.

    I don’t see how free trade under the rule of law in the commercial marketplace called for the mutilation and bureaucratisation of the universities, the elevation of colleges to uni status, the amalgamations, all the nonsense associated with data collection for Canberra etc etc. HECS makes sense as a fund raiser but that could have been implemented without any of the other disruptive and negative changes.

  18. November 28th, 2004 at 21:47 | #18

    PS I meant to say, in approaching the universities I did not want to repeat the error of the efficiency expert who went to a concert and noticed serious overmanning in the orchestra (not everyone was playing all the time).

    The editor of the collection was Coady and the contribution from Seamus Miller took my fancy to such an extent that I will put it on line when the webmistress has time to handle the backlog of new stuff for the Rathouse.

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